Posted September 1, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Woody Allen

Magic in the Moonlight: Allen on Auto-Pilot

At times while watching Woody Allen‘s new film, Magic in the Moonlight, I wondered if Allen intentionally made it awful as some kind of avant-garde experiment — an interrogation of the script-writing and filmmaking conventions of assembly-line B pictures.

But I don’t think so. This film is bad in the ordinary way — that is, unintentionally. It looks like Allen simply was operating on auto-pilot, when he wrote it and when he filmed it.

I’d love to interview the actors for their take. Did Allen seem lost during the shoot? Did those terrible (and luridly public) child-abuse allegations surface during filming? Whatever was causing it, something was way off for Allen during this project. Light was on, but nobody was home.

The film does have some charm, particularly at the tail end. But overall, this will surely go down in history as one of Allen’s worst.

Magic in the Moonlight takes place in Europe in the 1920’s. Colin Firth stars as Stanley, a professional magician who is something of a public figure in his campaign to rid Europe of what he sees as superstition.

At the start of the film, Stanley is asked by a friend to prove that a young American psychic (played terribly by Emma Stone) is a fake. She has been almost adopted by his family, and they essentially run all family decisions by her first. Stanley troops off to France with this friend to expose the tricks of this supposed medium.

But the psychic, just upon looking at Stanley, seems to know everything about him. In fairly short order, Stanley becomes a believer. There’s nothing wrong with this basic premise. In fact, I like the idea for the film. The problem is in the delivery. The script and acting that bring this story to life is what is so bad. I didn’t copy down any dialogue, but this paraphrasing will give you a sense of the script:

Stanley would say something like this to his friend: “I can’t believe it. There really is a spirit world. This changes how I think about life. I used to have such faith in science; now there clearly is more to the universe. I never had anything to believe in; now I have something.”

Friend: “Wow. That’s amazing. I never believed you’d become a believer.”

Stanley: “She has made me so happy.”

Yes, it’s that bad. It’s as if Allen hired fifth-graders to write the dialogue. The philosophical asides seem written by those who pen Hallmark greeting cards — ordinary sentiment nauseatingly on the nose. The simplistic writing causes the jaw to drop over and over. Stone’s atrociously simple acting suits the script perfectly. They’re equally awful. To be fair to her though, she was probably following Allen’s direction to a tee.

Firth is allowed to do a bit more than Stone. His character has something of a personality, while Stone’s seems like a greeting card come to life. Jacki Weaver and Eileen Atkins provide the only real acting in the film. But their roles are so small that they can’t do much to rescue the film.

Except for the costumes and art direction, which are fantastic, Magic in the Moonlight is a fiasco.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.